These Late Eclipses

by Elsa Hart

August 17, 2017

1135: In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas; and the second day, as he lay and slept in the ship, the day darkened over all lands, and the sun became, as it were, a three-night-old moon, and the stars about it at midday. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and affrighted, and said that a great thing should come hereafter. So it did, for that same year the king died….
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The unanticipated eclipse of 1135 terrified those who witnessed it. Sudden darkness, and the disappearance of the sun, speaks to us, no less than to King Henry’s subjects, of abandonment, disorder, and apocalypse.

A predicted eclipse is another matter. It inspires preparations and plans. When exactly will it happen? What vantage point is best? As excitement builds for the August 21, 2017 eclipse, confirming its time and place is a task for Siri or Alexa. The density and geographic specificity of Google searches for the eclipse is so great that, as The Washington Post reports, mapping their origin recreates the path the eclipse will travel.

Today, we can calculate eclipses to such a high standard of accuracy that scientists apologize for small errors (induced by tidal drag!) that affect predictions more than five centuries in the future. NASA’s Five Millennium Catalog charts 11,898 eclipses, ranging from 2000 BCE to 3000 CE. In this data-rich environment, we worry less about an eclipse portending the fall of kings, and more about whether cell signal in rural areas will be strong enough to post pictures to Instagram.

1650: When I acquired the empire, my first concern was the ordering of time for the use of the empire, and in the autumn of my first year’s reign, seeking an experiment of the art that John Adam [Schall von Bell] had restored, I ordered the observation of an eclipse which he had predicted. I found that the time of the eclipse corresponded exactly to his calculation.
The Shunzhi Emperor, reported in Kircher’s China Illustrata

With these words, the Emperor of the new Qing Dynasty in China commemorated a victory for the Jesuit Schall von Bell in an astronomical competition between the conquered Chinese, the conquering Manchu, and Jesuit missionaries. But Schall’s triumph was fleeting. Fifteen years later, he was accused of inaccuracy and imprisoned. On a frigid afternoon in January, the Manchu regents offered him his freedom if he could predict that day’s eclipse to the minute using his Western method. He was victorious before a cheering crowd. When the Emperor’s son was old enough to claim the throne, the Jesuits were favored. They produced for the young dynasty a new astronomical calendar intended to bolster the legitimacy of Qing emperors for the next two thousand years.

1979: Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky…. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down.
Dillard, Annie. “Total Eclipse.” The Atlantic. 8 Aug. 2017.

In the hills in southern Washington where Dillard watched the 1979 eclipse, the moon obscured the sun at 9:14 AM, on February 26. NASA’s calculations show a predicted and predictable event – nowhere in them can we identify the sense of mortality and apocalypse that the eclipse inspires in Dillard. There is a separation between the planetary mathematics of eclipses and the meanings ascribed to them by humans.

This separation is also evident in the Jesuit predictions. For all their famed accuracy, a comparison with the NASA catalog reveals the predictions are far from precise. What explains their untarnished reputation? The answer may lie in the second Qing Emperor’s terse response to an astronomer who witnessed an eclipse the Jesuits had not foreseen. “It is not possible,” the Emperor wrote, “that the new method can produce any mistakes.” He suggested the astronomer correct his account of what he had seen to match Jesuit math. For the Emperor, predicted eclipses served political needs.

No matter how accurate our predictions, an eclipse can never be fully understood in advance. “No people, no significance,” writes Dillard. Around a conjunction of celestial bodies adhere layers of individual human experience and historical pattern. King Henry’s eclipse began as a sudden, inexplicable darkness. Only after the death of the monarch did it become a portent which would persist through the centuries. Schall’s eclipse was transformed by imperial decree into a triumph of Western science; Dillard’s into a memento mori.

This month, on the 21st, the eclipse’s greatest extent will be in a field three miles east of Cerulean, Kentucky. It will begin at 1:24 PM and will last for 2 minutes, 40 seconds. We predicted the circumstances of this eclipse years ago, but it may be one year, or a thousand, before we know its meaning.

*Title from King Lear (1.2.98-99): “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us….”
© 2017 Elsa Hart
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ELSA HART is the author of Jade Dragon Mountain, a historical mystery centered around an 18th century eclipse at the border of China and Tibet, and The White Mirror, its sequel.